We measured the variability in volume, total cells, cell types, and proteins in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid recovered from 10 volunteers (five smokers, five non-smokers) lavaged repeatedly over a three-year period. Thirty lavages were performed using a rigorously standardized approach. Differential counts on the cytospin preparations were performed by three independent readers and interobserver variability in the interpretation of these counts measured. Variability in interpreting the cellular counts was less in smokers than non-smokers and decreased as the number of cells of any particular type increased. Only one reader interpreting the mean percentage of cells recovered of one cell type (neutrophils) in only one smoking group, the nonsmokers, was significantly different from the other two. There was also considerable variability in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid total protein, albumin, IgG, and IgA. Expressing albumin and IgG as a percentage of total protein recovered and expressing IgA and albumin as a ratio in nonsmokers lessened the variability of these parameters. Mean and standard deviations of the cellular and protein concentrations showed that large differences in these parameters would be necessary in order to attribute these changes to changes in the underlying pulmonary status. Excessive variability in nearly all parameters in this group without recognized lung disease challenges the usefulness of this test in the clinical assessment of patients serially followed because of underlying lung disease.